“Ya Can’t Make This Stuff Up!”

Let’s start with this. Here’s a quote and a great explanation from this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of the book of Leviticus:

Vayikra 4:22.

אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵֽעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵֽׁם:

וכי יעלה על דעתך שיהא נשיא, מנהיגם של ישראל, חוטא? אלא, אומר רבי יוסף חיים מבגדאד–ראשי התיבות של “אשר נשיא יחטא” הם אותיות “אני”: כשהנשיא מתגאה, חס-ושלום, ואומר בלבבו “אני ואפסי עוד”, אז הוא בא לידי עבירות גדולות וחמורות.

When a ruler sinned, and did something through ignorance against any of the commandments of Adonai his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty…”

Jewish tradition looks at these words VERY carefully, as should we. The very first word of this verse אשר, which means “when” in this sentence, is immediately noteworthy to the rabbis. In referring to the consequences for ANY other category of sinner and sinning, even A PRIEST, the Torah uses the word אם, meaning “if”. The Zohar, the great text of Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, says that the reason our text uses אשר/when instead of אם/with is because for a ruler…

“…surely HE HAS SINNED, for his heart is swelled with pride because all the people follow him and are under his charge. Hence, it says, “When a ruler has sinned,” namely in transgressing a negative precept and sinning against one of them. It, therefore, does not say of him ‘and if’, because this matter OF HIS SINNING is not in doubt.”

The anticipatory nature the rabbis assigned to the sinning of those in power is further underscored in the Zohar when Rabbi Yehuda comments that even though ALL the people were offered the possibility of donating semi-precious stones for the breastplate of the High Priest in the Tabernacle, the Torah specifically says, “And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate” (Shemot 35:27). Rabbi Yehuda imagines a proclamation from God that explains why: “Though this donation is open for everyone, let these stones be brought by the rulers”. What is the reason for this? THE STONES are placed on the priest’s heart, so the Holy Oneness, blessed be God, said, ‘Let the rulers, whose heart is proud, come and bring these stones that are on the priest’s heart, and their heart’s pride will be atoned for’…” Ya can’t make this up, people!

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad points out that the acrostic of אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא, “when a ruler sins” is the Hebrew word, ani/אני – meaning “I/me” in English. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains, if a prince becomes arrogant, and says to himself “me and nothing besides me” he arrives, heaven forbid!, at a state of the commission of sins of major proportions. In other words, it’s not a matter of if the ruler will become arrogant, self-serving and/or narcissistic, he already has. To assume otherwise is not the ruler’s fault, it is the fault of his subjects. It’s not his problem it’s ours. Ya can’t make this stuff up folks!

An analysis by Rabbi Shimon haSofer of an earlier verse in this week’s portion underscores this point.

Vayikra 4:3. If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty…

Rabbi Shimon explains, “Each generation gets the leaders most appropriate for it. Therefore, if the High Priest sins, it is an indication that the people are themselves in a low state of spirituality, and that can be the cause of the priest’s sins.” Ya can’t make this up either.

Another commentator on the same verse, Rabbi Yaakov of Lita, noticing that this verse uses two words for sins chata’im/חטאים and ashamot/אשמות, says that if the leader of the people permits himself to do small sins – chata’im/חטאים, then the people will allow themselves to do ashamot/אשמות  – even greater ones. That is to say that the people look to their leaders as role models and when the leaders act or even speak sinfully or rudely, the people will do likewise but in an even more unfettered manner.

Now, chata’im/חטאים are considered inadvertent “missings of the mark”, that is we assume the person was “aiming” to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing. Ashamot/אשמות, on the other hand, are sins of guilt, in which a person knows that s/he is guilty of a wrongdoing. And, because s/he knows, s/he can express remorse and atone. But of course, if the leader doesn’t apologize and repent, neither will the people. And, no, ya can’t make that up.

Finally, in our Torah portion, as it is several other times in the book of Leviticus, the Torah distinguishes between the sacrifice brought by a poor person and the sacrifice brought by an affluent person (to the Tabernacle)… The Talmud asks: “What if a rich man brings the same sacrifice as is required of the poor man. Has he fulfilled his obligations?” The answer is that he has not, and, according to one view, it is considered as though he is מביא חולין לעזרה – bringing an unconsecrated offering to the Temple and thereby profaning the name of God. Rabbi Yaakov D’lllescas comments: “In every instance of fulfilling a Mitzvah, he who can do much, but does little, profanes the name of God.” Ya can’t make it up folks! The rich are supposed to have a completely different category of taxation than do the poor. And if they succeed in fooling the IRS and somehow end up paying less…or nothing, they’re not smart – they’ve profaned the name of God.

I’ll bet you can’t guess to whom all this refers? Turns out this week’s Torah portion, if it’s not a biblical version of a Congressional hearing, it’s at least a list of the allegations that lead to a hearing. And who’s making the allegations? The Voice-of-Everything! The Universe itself is screaming out for transparency – for one, straight-up, true narrative.

The Torah’s attitude and the rabbis’ attitude toward the powerful and the wealthy may seem a bit cynical, but it’s from real-life experience, theirs and ours. Did you ever wonder why the Torah, and specifically the book of Leviticus which contains the great bulk of our commandments in its verses, is so obsessed with the articulation of law to limit people’s behavior? Because a person doesn’t need to look very far beyond his or her own nose (or look in the mirror) to see that people can’t be trusted to be good or kind or benevolent or thoughtful or magnanimous or inclusive or embracing or respectful. There are stop signs for that. There are speed limits for that. There are seat belts for that. And there’s the Torah and all its commentaries for that. And my responsibility as a progressive Jewish American is to bring that wisdom to laps of my elected officials and stand there until they pay attention.


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